This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
I stared down at my city because I wanted it to be the last thing I ever saw. The dim, flickering streetlights, the occasional flashing headlight of a vehicle and the peaceful resplendence of a neighbourhood in the middle of the night almost made my heart ache. But there was no turning back. The big clock in the middle of the city showed half an hour to midnight.
I had reached a crossroads in life, and I had chosen the easy way out.
As I stood on the bridge, miles above the nearest human being, I was ready to jump and end it all. I knew it would be a messy way to go, but I had made my mind up.
I had no future. My life was a monotonous routine which I hated. I had no skills, no talent and no inspiration. There were a lot of times when I wanted to shake myself by the collar and ask me if I was truly happy with what I was doing. I believed I was.
I was wrong.
The woman I loved and thought loved me back, left me three hours ago. We met at the coffee shop where she had once declared her undying love for me and told me her parents had fixed a wedding date for her.
I wasn’t invited.
The rest of the events which took place were a bit of a haze. I have no idea how I ended up on top of the bridge, staring down at the night-life of the city below me.
Nobody would miss me. I had nobody who cared for me, nobody who’d recognise my name if it appeared in the papers tomorrow, nobody to claim my body in the morgue. In a short time, I’d be a stain on the pavement, as inconvenient as ever. The people who’d be hired to scrape me off the road would curse me, mumbling that I’d made more work for them.
That was me, always a bother to everyone.
A cold wind had started to blow, causing goosebumps to erupt on my skin. Under the bridge, a narrow lane winded across me and extended as far as the eye could see. I’d have preferred to jump into the sea, but the nearest water body was miles away and I honestly didn’t care for walking any more. There was nothing else for it. I steeled myself and looked down again, trying to imagine the rush of wind as I fell, at the swirl of colours and noises I’d experience, how it’d all end in a sickening splat.
Dying wasn’t the hard part, falling was.
How would the life ebb out of me? Would it be snuffed out like a candle? Would the colour and sound around me gradually fade, like an old TV?
Would it hurt?
Well, it was time to find out. I glanced at the railings of the bridge. It had a dove carved on it every few metres, probably as a symbol of peace and life. How ironic.
I gripped the railing tightly and took a deep breath. This was it. I hoisted one leg over the railing and prepared to jump.
I closed my eyes.
Goodbye, cruel world, I thought.
“Kind of a long way down, don’t you think?” said someone to my left.
I almost lost my balance and fell headfirst.
As it is, the foot which was still planted on the bridge skidded a little and I had to hold the railing tighter so that I wouldn’t fall. I opened my eyes wide and turned to see who had spoken.
“What the he…” I started. And stopped.
My eyes grew wide as I looked the… boy that had spoken. He was standing a few feet from me, leaning casually against the railing.
At first glance, he looked like any of the normal teenagers you’d see lounging around at a mall or any public place for that matter. Long hair, thin face, earphones trailing from each ear and a Smartphone in his hand, which he peering into. He wore a normal T-shirt and jeans as he stood with his back to the railing.
The problem was, he had a tail.
I’m not talking a cute, curly doggy-tail. Picture a bright red, whip-like appendage, about three feet long, curled at his feet like a python. The tip of the tail was shaped like an arrow-head and as I watched, it lifted a couple of feet off the ground, made a motion like it was sniffing the air and fell back down.
I blinked twice to make sure I wasn’t having a hallucination.
“It’s rude to stare,” said the boy, in a sing-song voice.
My throat felt dry as I looked from the tail to his face, and back to the tail again. My brain was whirring like a old motor, trying to explain how a boy could have a tail.
Of course, it’s some sort of costume. You know teenagers and their fads these days, it’s probably something to raise awareness about not cutting off dogs’ tails for PETA or something, that’s it…
“No, it’s not a PETA thing. It’s a real tail,” said the boy, not looking up from his phone. “Want to touch it?” The tail shot off the ground, quick as a flash and the arrow-shaped tip hovered in front of my hand, as if it expected a handshake.
If I hadn’t lost my voice at the sight of the tail, I’d have screamed bloody murder and slipped off the railing. But my mind was several seconds too slow, still trying to find a work-around as to the existence of the tail.
“W-what is that?” I managed to whisper.
He finally looked at me in the eye, and when he spoke, it was a condescending tone.
“And here I thought you were a smart one. It’s a tail, man. What does it look like?”
I blinked again, feeling a little faint. If my mind weren’t so full of committing suicide, I’d have phoned the authorities or perhaps the nearest asylum, since I was obviously seeing things.
I shook my head and turned back, looking to move a bit further down the bridge. On the off chance the boy wasn’t an illusion, I didn’t want him to scar him for life by having him watch a man jump off a bridge.
“I wouldn’t jump, if I were you,” came the boy’s voice behind me. “At least not for another 24 minutes.”
I stopped dead. The wind which had been blowing stopped suddenly, and the air was deadly quiet. I turned back slowly and faced the boy, who had gone back to peering into his phone.
“What did you say?” I asked.
He glanced up at me for a brief instant.
“I said, you don’t have to jump for another 24 minutes, unless you want to spend your last half-hour on earth writhing in agony.”
My heart beat faster in my chest as I considered his words. The way he said them, the cock of his head and the slightest hint of the smile at the corner of his mouth, told me he was serious.
“H-how did you know I was going to jump? Are you a detective or something? Did you deduce it from my breathing pattern?”
He raised an eyebrow and considered me like I was talking out of my hat.
“Um, no. The Soul Reaper app told me.”
“The Soul Reaper app. You know, the app which tells you when, where and how many people are going to die.”
Okay, look. I’d seen a lot of weird stuff in my life. I could accept a creepy teenager with a tail in the middle of the night, but I refuse to believe there was an app which told you when you’d die. I’d had it with this kid.
I shook my head and turned to go again.
“It must’ve been hard when the love of your life chose money over you. Did you plan to die here all along, or did your feet just happen to bring you here? You’ve got no idea how many times that happens.” He said, again in that sing-song voice of his.
For the second time, I stopped. I whirled around to look at him. He’d put the phone down and was looking at me with a mixture of amusement and excitement in his eyes, like I was a new plaything he was trying to learn the mechanics of.
“How did I know you were going to commit suicide and your ex-girlfriend left you? Your profile is updated on the Find A Soul app.” He shook his phone at me.
“What the hell…”
“Look for yourself,” he said and threw the phone at me. I wasn’t expecting it, but caught it on reflex – and dropped it immediately.
The phone was hot on one side and cold on the other. It was like walking into an air-conditioned room after spending some time in the heat outside. I picked it up hastily, hoping it wasn’t scratched up. It wasn’t.
I looked at the screen, which had my name and my photo on it. It had all my details, including my birthday, the hospital I was born in, and even the names of the nurses who oversaw my delivery. I scrolled down with shaking fingers, reading my life story. Even the most discreet of things I’d done, stuff I was sure that nobody had any idea about, where spelled out for the world to see. I skimmed through the text, till it stopped on the last line, which said,
‘Abandoned by ex-girlfriend, ponders suicide on a bridge…’
My entire body was trembling. I didn’t know how, but I’d gotten myself involved in something supernatural. I looked at the boy, who made a little motion with his hands, like he was calling a puppy. The phone flew from my hands and into his, and he resumed peering into it.
I gulped twice and tried to speak, but no words came out. I tried to ask about the app, the tail or what the heck was going on, but the question I dearly wanted to know the answer to sprung to my lips.
“Who are you?”
The boy smiled. His cheekbones went back and revealed a set of pearly-white teeth, and he threw his head back, so the moonlight put his jaw in the shadow, and his tail perked up again, sniffing the air like an excited dog.
He looked at me.
“I am Death, pleased to meet you.”
After almost jumping to my death, seeing a red tail on a boy and reading my life’s history on a Smartphone, you’d thing I couldn’t be gobsmacked anymore, but when this teenager told me he was Death, I literally cocked my head to one side and looked at him quizzically.
“Oh, you don’t believe me.” He said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Actually, now I understand why you have a tail,” I said, trying to sound brave, when actually my insides were quivering like jelly. “And I guess the phone is like your modern-day Death Note?”
He brightened immediately and nodded. “That’s right! Now that’s one anime which got stuff right, even if they did take some liberties. I don’t have to actually write my victim’s names here, you know. I get their details, and I go to reap souls. That’s why I’m here right now,” he said, and gave me a toothy grin.
He moved closer to me, tapping on the screen as he walked, and held the phone in front of my face.
I looked at the screen. It was a different colour now, black and red, and it said Soul Reaper on the top. I guessed this was the app he was talking about before.
In the middle of the screen, one line kept flashing – Two, Under Stepston Bridge, Midnight.
“See?” he said, smiling genially. “It says there’ll be two deaths under Stepston Bridge – this bridge, that is – at midnight, which is…” he consulted his watch, which was also black and red, with horns drawn into the dial, “about 16 minutes from now.”
I gulped, as I stared at my literal death warrant.
“S-so… that’s supposed to mean…”
“You, yes,” he said and grinned again.
“B-but it says two deaths,” I said, trying to put forward what I thought was a good point.
“Yes, I know,” he said and shrugged. “I suppose the second victim will come along shortly, the app never lies you know.”
I gulped again as my forehead felt wet with perspiration. I managed to find my voice again.
“S-so… You really are…”
“Death, with a capital D, yes.” He said.
“So even if I jump now, I’m not going to die until midnight?”
He nodded again and leaned against the railing once more.
“I’ve looked into your records, and you’ve been a good man for most of your life, so I decided to give you a little heads-up. You can jump right now, but you’ll lie in a pool of your own blood, unable to scream from a crushed throat, looking at your own smashed brain and generally experience excruciating pain till midnight, which is when you’ll eventually snuff it. I thought you deserved a warning, and I had some free time, so here I am,” he said, with the air of one talking about the weather.
A swirl of questions exploded inside in my mind with so much force that my head actually started to hurt. I opened my mouth to ask him more, especially about what death would bring, and what was next.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t know why, but some small part of my mind told me some things were left best unanswered. I looked at his face and saw him peering intently into mine, a small smile playing at his lips. Without meaning to, I blushed.
“So,” I said, casting my mind around to talk about something, because I really hate awkward silences.
“Mh-hmm,” he said, burying his face in the screen. Suddenly, he looked up.
“Do you know I reaped a couple of souls at midnight under this bridge last year as well?” he said.
I stared at him, not prepared for a question like that. Apparently, it was rhetorical, for he continued.
“A pair of drunk motorcyclists rammed into a couple just up there.” He pointed at a spot ahead the bridge. “Rammed the couple straight against the railing and crushed them. See that twisted railing over there with the carved dove missing? That’s where it happened.”
He scratched his chin as he pointed to an old and warped railing, about thirty metres from us. It definitely looked all scraped up, like something heavy had pounded into it.
“Yep, I reaped their souls myself. The boy was hardly older than you. The motorcyclists escaped, by the way, they were never seen again.” He said, and seemed deep in thought.
“8 minutes to go, by the way,” he said, looking at his watch again. He got off the railing and stretched, looking almost bored.
“Aren’t you going to ask me anything?” He said, doing some toe-touches.
“Well… Do you usually appear before people like this?”
“In the guise of a boy, you mean? No, I vary it. Sometimes I’m an older man, or a black dog, I was even a raging fire once, now that was fun…”
“Er, no. Do you often warn people they’re going to die?”
The boy – Death – raised an eyebrow. He swayed his head from side to side and considered it for a minute.
“Hm, I do believe this is my first time. Funny how that happens isn’t it?”
“Why did you do it for me?”
I expected him to look me in the eye and tell me how I was central in the grand scheme of things and how I would be the key piece in an event that would change history as we would know it.
Instead, he shrugged and said, ‘I was bored.’
I sighed. So my brief appointment with death was a mere window for Death to have some fun and entertain himself. Even in death, I was merely a source of time pass.
I ran my hands through my hair and looked at Death. He was smiling that creepy smile again, his face hungrily boring into mine. I sighed again. My life had been one big joke, and now it looks like my death would be the same.
“Okay, one final question, and this is just because I’m curious, mind,” I said.
“Fire away. Five minutes left,”
“Now you’ve told me that I’ll die at midnight, what happens if I just walk away now? Does it mean I cheat death?”
Death stopped smiling. The air froze, and I suddenly started to shiver. Drops of sweat trickled down my back as Death fixed his eyes on mine.
“Oh no, you never cheat death. Or Death, for that matter, don’t worry about that. Death is cold, calculating, final and inevitable. Death will come for you when you least expect it, oh yes. If you’ve got an appointment with Death, you keep it, or else…”
Death hadn’t frowned or even sounded angry, but his words cut through the air like a knife. Each syllable resonated in my ears as for the first time that night, I felt afraid.
I’d had enough. I was going to die, and that was that. I gripped the railing so hard that my hand hurt. I glanced at the big clock in the city – it showed 4 minutes to midnight. Heck, I’d suffered all this long, what’s four more minutes?
Once again, I swung a leg over the railing. Death looked at me with a strange expression in his eyes. It was something hovering between curiosity… and was that pity?
I swallowed and looked up at the night stars. They were beautiful. I took a breath and prepared to hoist my foot off the ground.
That’s when I heard the scream.
It was more like that start of a scream, and then it was abruptly cut off.
I stopped and turned to my left, where the scream had come from. In the dim light of the streetlight, I could barely make out some people against the side of the bridge.
I slowly stepped back on to the road and peered closer. Beside me, Death had tucked his phone back into his pockets and was watching with an interested expression on his face. I moved a little closer, and the full sight of what was happening hit me like a truck.
Two men were holding a woman against the side of the railing. One of them was holding her mouth shut while the other was looking left and right, scanning the surroundings. Either he was totally blind that he missed both me and Death, or he was so tensed he looked past us that he turned to his partner and nodded. The woman was visibly struggling under the other man’s grip as she flailed out with thin arms which made no impact.
“Why didn’t he see us?” I asked in a low voice.
“I believe you’re standing in a bit of a blind spot. As for me, I chose to be invisible to them. Also, to answer your earlier question, I believe the second victim has arrived.” Said Death, nodding at the woman who was slipping lower and lower down the railing.
“H-Her? W-what do you mean? Go stop them! Do something!” I said, gesticulating at the men. The one who was holding the girl slapped her hard. It echoed like a gunshot across the bridge, and she slumped down, unconscious.
Death raised an eyebrow. “Why? I’m Death, remember? I’ve got souls to reap. And you’ve got three minutes to go, by the way.”
I stared at him, wide-eyed. Ahead of me, both men were giving each other malevolent grins as the first one stepped back from the second. With a sickening realisation, I knew what fate awaited her.
I ran forward, nearly tripping on my feet as I launched myself towards the two men.
Death was right. I had been in a blind spot, because neither of them saw me until I was practically on top of them. I pushed the one who standing out of the way, and before he could react, clamped my arms around the first one’s neck, holding him in a half-nelson. I smelled the alcohol on his sour breath, and felt my head spin as it made its way through my nose.
I pulled him to his feet as he struggled in front of me, making choking and gurgling sounds. I drove a knee into his back and he arched back. I tightened my grip and his attempts at fighting back was getting slower, his movements more laboured, no doubt a side-effect of the drinks he had consumed.
I was wresting the initiative from him. There was probably two minutes to go before I died and Death reaped my soul. Saving this girl would be the last thing I would ever do.
That was when the second guy kicked my side. My grip on the first man loosened as I slammed into the railing, lights flashing before my eyes. I barely had time to cover my head before a shower of kicks came flying at me. I closed my eyes and winced as a heavy boot pummelled my arms and head.
“Got you, did he?” asked the second men.
The first one had finished coughing and was looking at me with murder in his eyes. “Right well, he did. I say we finish him off before we start on the girl.”
The second man nodded and kicked me in the gut again. I rolled forward, holding my stomach and moaning in pain. He placed a boot on my neck and began to squeeze. Lights popped in my head and my throat started to constrict. My headache got worse till my head felt like it was about to burst open. I tried to prise the leg off my neck, but it was too strong.
As the life ebbed away from me, I suddenly felt a tear slip down my cheek.
I didn’t understand. I was ready for this for a long time. I was ready to leave everything behind in a world that had used me and given nothing back. I was ready to go on the next great adventure, ready to be a stain on the road.
Then why was I crying?
I opened my eyes and the answer came to me. I looked at the face of the unconscious woman. She was beautiful, in a sort of ethereal way. She didn’t deserve this fate. She deserved a full, happy life, with someone who could give it to her.
It was like a switch had flicked on in my head.
I was the one who was prepared to die, not her. She didn’t deserve to be the second victim tonight.
A surge of strength poured through me as I lifted the boot off my neck with both arms. The man stumbled and backed away. I sprang to my feet and faced them. Both of them lunged towards me and grabbed me by the scruff of the collar.
The next few seconds happened in a flash. I remember grabbing both of their necks. Somehow, we’d all turned around so that they were with their backs to the railing. Their eyes raged in a frenzy as they both tried to strangle me.
But I was stronger. I had decided to fight for another.
My mind became blank as I did the first thing that came to my mind. I pushed with all my strength.
I felt their grips loosen as both men fell backward, stumbled, and crashed into the railing.
I only had a split-second view of the railing which they had slammed into. It was an old, twisted one, with a dove missing.
With an almighty crash, the entire section of the railing gave way and both men disappeared from sight. A second later, I heard a sickening noise as they splattered on the ground underneath.
Far away, the big clock in the middle of the city struck midnight.
I slumped to the ground, shell-shocked at what had happened. My entire body trembled as I replayed the last minute in my head.
From my left, a voice called out,
“Top stuff, very good.”
I raised my head. Death was standing over me, a satisfied expression on his face. He took his phone out from his pocket, and as I watched, two small wisps of smoke zoomed out from under the bridge and went inside the phone. He nodded and put the phone back into his pocket.
“Oh, those were their souls. I was promised two souls at midnight you see, and it seems I’ve collected my due.”
“B-but you said you wanted my…”
“Your soul? Come now, don’t flatter yourself. I don’t recall saying that. I simply said two people would die here at midnight.” He pointed down the bridge where the bodies of the two men undoubtedly lay. “And they have. My job here is complete.”
“S-so, I’m not going to die?” I managed to stutter.
“Well, the Soul Reaper app says the next death will happen another 500 miles from here in about 3 minutes. So unless you can travel that far, I’d say no.”
My shoulders slumped. I began to tremble again, and this time, I realised that it was a different sort of tremble. I was laughing, actually laughing, and what more, I was literally laughing in the face of Death.
Death smiled again and turned his back on me, no doubt to go to his next location of death.
“Tell me the truth,” I said. He stopped in his tracks.
“Why did you appear in front of me the way you did? Why did you stop me from jumping?”
Death didn’t turn around for a few seconds, and for a fleeting moment, I wondered if I’d crossed a line. Then, he half-glanced at me and spoke,
“Do you remember the accident I told you about? How two drunk motorcyclists killed a couple over here?”
I nodded slowly. The girl near my feet was stirring.
“Well, what if I told you the two men who died today were the same men who ran over the couple?”
I stared at Death, thunderstruck.
“What goes around doesn’t always come around, remember that. So every once in a while, I give it a little push, to keep the balance, to keep things from going haywire.” He turned around fully now and looked me in the eye. For the first time that night, I saw a bit of sadness in his eyes.
He clapped his hands, making me jump.
“All right then. I’m late for my next appointment. Last year, a couple was killed, and two men walked free. Today, two men were killed, and you two remain.”
He pointed at me and the girl. “So be a good boy and take a hint, okay?” He made a kind of motion with his hands like he was telling us to hug.
“Seriously? I barely know her!” The girl was emitting a small moan, and her eyelids were slowly fluttering.
“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Here’s a piece of advice, keep it simple.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re Death. You’re supposed to be spreading suffering, not love.”
Once again, Death threw back his head and grinned. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.
“Who says they are so different from one another?” he said in a rich tone.
He started to shimmer, getting fainter by the second.
“A parting word – Don’t die before you live. I look forward to the day I reap your soul.” He said, as his tail coiled around him, before vanishing entirely.
I barely had a second to catch my breath before the girl at my feet shot awake and started looking around her like a feral animal. Her hands were closed into fists and she faced this way and that in abject terror. Finally, she noticed me and sprang back.
“It’s fine. The men are gone. You’re okay now.” I said, holding up both hands in a placating gesture.
“Gone? W-where did they go?” She turned back and tried to look down the bridge.
I acted quickly. No point in having her see two dead bodies. I cupped my hand under her chin and made her face me. I drew closer, and looked her in the eye.
“It’s safe,” I said, not breaking eye-contact. She had beautiful eyes, like two pools of black water.
“I’ll protect you,” I said, and meant it. She blushed and nodded. At second later, I felt like kicking myself for saying a stupid thing like that.
I got up and offered a hand. She took it and I helped her up. I offered to walk her home, and she agreed. We walked wordlessly, side by side, down the empty bridge. I didn’t let go of her hand the entire time.
Death was right. You didn’t die before you lived.
I tried to die once, and it didn’t quite appeal to me.
Now, I was ready to live.